Steve King's Real Problem: "Civility" No Longer Protects White Supremacy

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Steve King's Real Problem: "Civility" No Longer Protects White Supremacy

Trump’s alter ego, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), was just rebuked by Congress, and stripped of his committee assignments by his own party. King’s downfall demonstrates a swift, startling change in how we define our politics.

The Times reported:

Mr. King, who has been an ally of President Trump on the border wall and other issues, has a long history of making racist remarks and insults about immigrants, but has not drawn rebukes from Republican leaders until recently. In November, top Iowa Republicans like Senator Charles E. Grassley endorsed Mr. King for re-election even after one House Republican official came out and denounced him as a white supremacist. But in an interview with The Times published last week, Mr. King said: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

King’s crazed fever-dreams were supposedly Too Much for the Republicans, who joined in the chorus of voices denouncing the Iowa Congressman. But of course, this sense of decency is make-believe. No rational person took the GOP hand-wringing seriously. Nor should they have.

Congressman King is a clueless Neanderthal with a talent for re-election and making a public ass of himself. He’s the embodiment of the America that Trump wants to bring back. King stands for a simpler time, of rolling corn fields and earnest manure piles, where dull doughy men freely bleated their prejudices in public.

To imagine King as some genius of racism misses the point: he’s typical of his party. They believe as he does; they merely don’t admit it. They also covet a Wall, and fear the caravan, and want endless war abroad, and the end of food stamps, and the destruction of public health care. King’s policies are their policies, and will hurt people of color and poor folk.

Where Republicans are concerned, King made two mistakes. He said the quiet part out loud and he wasn’t the president. That’s why the party rebuked him. It had absolutely nothing to do with his supposed indecency, or his racism, or his crudity. The GOP loves those features on Trump, after all.

Three years before Trump called Mexicans rapists, King said this:

While talking about “Dreamers” in a July 2013 interview for Newsmax TV, King claimed that for every young immigrant who becomes a school valedictorian there are “100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”

The GOP loves one of these men, and despises the other. There’s no mystery there. One is a bigot with power, and one is a bigot without.

But the inevitable conclusion of Steve King’s career draws us into a deeper, and more interesting question. King has been spewing Klansman jargon for years. Why did he collapse now, in the era of Trump? What changed?

To answer the question, we need to solve a mystery: the strange case of the Supposedly Offensive Congresswoman. As the Guardian reminds us:

... Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib… [has] some strong words for the president. Speaking at an event shortly after being sworn in, Tlaib, the first Palestinian American elected to Congress, recalled a conversation she had after she won. She said: “And when your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama, look, you won. Bullies don’t win,’ and I said, ‘Baby, they don’t’ – because we’re gonna go in there and we’re going to impeach the motherfucker.”

As the Guardian noted, “Tlaib came under swift criticism from Republicans and what the new Democratic party rebels often see as the old brand of milquetoast Democrats, for so-called incivility,” which should not have surprised anyone.

But, again, why would the media immediately fault Tlaib, while they protected King for years? To untangle this knot, we need to read a little closer. Take a look at King’s question. He asked:

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

King is genuinely struggling with something he does not understand. I suspect confusion is a fairly typical situation for him. So let’s assume he is honestly perplexed. What’s eating you, Steve?

The Congressman’s words are revealing, for those with ears to hear and eyes to read.

King grew up in the America that has existed since Europeans landed on this continent: a country that, for most of its history, was dedicated to white supremacy. It was so ingrained in American culture that it was practically in the bread Americans ate and the air Americans breathed. White supremacy’s premises were accepted without question, its history swallowed without argument, and the settled order of things taken for granted. When King asks how this became offensive, I think he is in earnest. This is a deeply racist man, who is dumbfounded that the world is not as prejudiced as he is.

Here is the crucial takeaway: King is asking the central question of political discussion—and of politics. Not “When did such-and-such law get passed?” or “Why did this idea succeed?”

But, rather, “When did white supremacy become debatable?”

In other words, When did this become political?

Of all the powers exercised in the practice of politics—the ability to launch wars, to raise revenue, to build schools and set up courts of law—the mightiest power of all is the ability to say what is and what is not political. That is the definition of political power. Next to it, the powers of a president or a Congress are nothing. Determining what is in and what is outside of politics—what can be changed and what is not allowed to be changed—defines how our societies work. Call it King’s Question.

When and where King grew up, nobody questioned white supremacy. It was thought to lay outside the bounds of politics. White supremacy was simply considered “the way things were.”

Don’t confuse this with the Overton Window, by the way. The Overton Window is a political science term; the Overton Window refers to the narrow range of policies that are considered politically realistic at any given time. The Overton Window is about feasibility. By contrast, King’s Question defines what politics is. The Overton Window concerns questions of acceptability; King’s Question concerns questions of existence.

The policy of Medicare For All is inside the Overton Window. Even people who dislike the idea understand that the idea exists. Medicare For All is thought of; it is discussed; it exists in the realm of political possibilities.

By contrast, the policy of abolishing the Supreme Court is barely thought of, much less discussed. The idea of cutting out the worst branch of government is not considered. The Court is thought of as eternal, as somehow outside of politics, like the swamp rat, ball lightning, or the Moon.

Yet if history teaches us anything, it’s that King’s Question gets asked all the time. Before the French and American Revolutions, King’s Question put royalty outside of debate. Monarchs were like mountains: they were there forever. And then they weren’t.

When a set of policies go against their privileges, conservatives like to say that these policies are outside of the natural order of things. When these policies go beyond conservative understanding, right-wingers express shock. As King did. When did this become offensive?

I have news for the Congressman. America has not gotten more coarse. Rather, the ground has shifted away from the powerful.

We have seen this in the last two weeks. At first, the media did what it always does. They accepted King’s racism as part of the natural order. They scolded Tlaib for speaking the truth. All in a day’s work.

But times have changed.

In 2016, Americans were still willing to put up with polite fictions—the pretense that the system worked, that calling the President a “motherfucker” was a mortal sin, and that men like Steve King no longer existed. Every single one of these claims was a lie, but it was a different America back then.

But now, in the third year of Trump, the press is still covering the world that was, not the world that is.

What decent person was offended by Tlaib’s profanity? Let’s go down the list. The left is not offended. The Democratic base isn’t offended. The right is not honestly offended, because Trump uses similarly harsh language all the time—and they cheer it. The press is not honestly offended. Everyone in the media curses, I assure you.

In short, the offense only exists because the media felt it should exist. In the Tlaib case, the press was following King’s Question. They decided that calling the president that name was outside the bounds of politics.

To the national press, decorum is part of the natural order of things. What white supremacy is to King, civility is to the media: something you can never question.

For the media, it is crucial to treat powerful people with unthinking respect. Decorum is important, so the decorous government can go about the decorous process of decorously letting children stay in decorous cages. Civility is important, so our kindly leaders can peacefully eat a kindly meal at a kindly restaurant before they drop kindly bombs from kindly planes on foreign people. The bounds of politics didn’t allow for disrespecting the leader. After Tlaib’s speech, media figures asked their own version of King’s Question:

Here’s the thing. King didn’t suddenly become an extremist. He stayed exactly where he was—where he’s always been—at the crossroads of cluelessness and race-baiting. The media stayed where they were: in a worshipful crouch. But this is a new day.

We must keep the focus of politics where it belongs: on the dignity and the suffering of marginalized people. When faced with bigotry such as King’s, we must make sure the quiet part is said out loud. The rest is silence.

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